Finally, 2020 is over. As we move toward 2021, I think it’s safe to say that the least we can ask is that this year isn’t as bad (please don’t be as bad). While 2020 ended up being a pretty good year for vegan food and food technology, it’s time to look ahead to the new year.
2021 is going to be big for both vegan food. Plant-based seafood and pork will start to take up a little more space, taking some of the spotlight away from the burgers that have dominated the market for the past few years. And we can look forward to rapid advancements in cultured meat — meat grown from animal cells — and other innovations that can change the impact of how we eat. Here are our top predictions for 2021.
1. Vegan Chicken Is the New Burger
Vegan burgers have been the darling of the plant-based food space, with good reason. Burgers are iconic (there’s even a book about why and how that happened). Beef production is also a leading cause of food-related carbon emissions and deforestation. There’s barely a doubt that fast food chains won’t continue to put vegan burgers on the menu — we’re looking at you, Wendy’s. But in 2021, it’s chicken’s turn.
KFC has been trialing vegan fried chicken developed by California-based Beyond Meat since the summer of 2019. Both brands have been silent about it since this summer (when they tested an updated recipe in the L.A. area) and we predict that 2021 will be the year that KFC launches vegan chicken nationwide. Mind you, this is for the U.S. — several international locations put plant-based chicken on the menu in 2020. From there, no restaurant chain will want to be the only one without a vegan chicken sandwich on the menu. Jack in the Box certainly got to chicken first with its UnChicken Sandwich, but there’s still space in the category for more options.
2021 will also see an influx of vegan chicken options in the supermarket aisle from mainstay brands such as Quorn and Lightlife Foods and startups like Simulate, Daring Foods, and a mix of international and domestic brands. We can expect to see even more choices for nuggets, cutlets, strips, and maybe even drumsticks. Beyond Meat quietly discontinued Beyond Chicken Strips, the brand’s first launch, in 2019. CEO and founder Ethan Brown has said in an interview that we can expect a new product — will 2021 be the year?
2. Plant-Based Eggcellence
Like with plant-based chicken, vegan eggs aren’t exactly new to the market. But it’s also a fast-growing category with plenty of room for growth, according to the nonprofit the Good Food Insititute (GFI).
“A lot of existing plant based egg products are filling gaps across specific functionalities,” Emma Ignaszewski, Corporate Engagement Strategist at GFI tells LIVEKINDLY.
The Just Egg, a plant-based egg-in-a-bottle made from mung beans, launched in the summer of 2019 and has so far been the leading name in the plant-based egg space. And the end of 2020 saw more competitors emerge in the space. Crack’d, another liquid vegan egg, made its UK debut. In France, two scientists are perfecting a plant-based egg that comes in a shell.
Ignaszewski explains that “the industry is continuing to explore plant based technologies, as well as fermentation and uncultivated egg technologies that can deliver products that would make large gains and providing alternatives to chicken eggs by filling other functionality gaps, or filling multiple gaps.”
Clara Foods, for example, uses “advanced yeast engineering and fermentation technologies to selectively cultivate new strains on the yeast strains produced.”
The resulting vegan egg white can be used for baking as well as other food applications. Multi-functional vegan egg products will likely have even more movement in 2021.
3. Fermented Proteins
The technology that can create vegan whey and casein, the primary proteins found in dairy products, is more accessible than ever. California-based food technology startup Perfect Day is one company that has embraced this. It uses a fungi that’s particularly good at growing animal proteins. Fascinating, right? Perfect Day can then sell those proteins to companies that want to make realistic-tasting plant-based dairy products. Brave Robot, a vegan ice cream brand made using those plant-based proteins, is one company that uses those proteins.
That’s just one example of what products made using fermented protein will look like. According to GFI, the fermented protein industry includes fungi, koji, bacteria, mycelium, and microalgae.
“2020 was a banner year for fermentation,” says Ignaszewski. There was a record $435 million invested in fermented protein in 2020, according to a GFI report published in September.
According to the nonprofit, investors in the space include high-profile food and beverage companies such as Kellogg, Danone, Kraft Heinz, Mars, and poultry giant Tyson Foods. And there’s room for growth.
“Fermentation is poised to solve so many challenges in the alternative protein space,” Ignaszewski adds. It’s scalable, low-cost, and “it can produce proteins that match the taste, texture, and nutritional qualities of animal-based proteins. In some sense, it’s quite possibly the dark horse of the protein world.”
We will likely see more products made using fermented proteins hit the market. Clara Foods, a food technology startup founded out of IndieBio, makes egg white protein using fermentation. Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd makes “Fy,” a fermented protein made from a fungi found in an acidic Yellowstone hot spring. Other products will be a little more familiar, like mycoprotein, industry vanguard Quorn’s hero ingredient. Prime Roots, which recently launched in Bay Area Whole Foods stores late last year, uses koji.
Ignaszewski says that meat is a category “ripe for disruption” by fermented protein. But, fermented protein will also result in plant-based dairy products, similar to what Perfect Day is doing with ice cream.
“Perfect Day is using fermentation to produce milk proteins like casein, and whey, and combining these with plant based fats, water, vitamins and minerals to make a lactose free product that has the same properties as milk, and subsequently as dairy based ice cream,” Ignaszewski continues. She adds that the ice cream category will likely see more movement in 2021 thanks to fermentation.
4. Pork & Fish Gain Traction
Pork and fish are increasingly part of the conversation about replacing conventional foods with more sustainable options. Last year, sausages were one of the few plant-based pork options to hit the U.S. market.
But next year, we’ll likely see vegan ground pork and maybe a new vegan bacon or two in supermarket aisles.
In Hong Kong, OmniPork, a plant-based pork made from peas, soy, and shiitake mushrooms, comes in the form of ground pork, strips, SPAM-like luncheon meat, dumplings, steamed buns, and ready-meals. In the US, Prime Roots launched vegan bacon made from koji, the fungus used to ferment sake and soy sauce. And St. Louis’s Hungry Planet makes vegan ground pork. This leaves room for more alternatives to enter the space.
The vegan seafood category will grow as conversations about the fishing industry’s impact on the planet open up. Good Catch Foods, which makes plant-based tuna, fish cakes, and crab cakes, expanded its retail presence in 2020. It also announced a joint distribution venture with Bumble Bee Foods, one of the largest seafood companies in North America.
“We’re also experiencing increased interest in the space from ocean-focused investors who have traditionally focused more on aquaculture,” Ignaszewski explains. “So with the influx of capital funding, I think we’ll see more activity in the food space.”
5. The Cultured Meat Revolution
2020 ended with some major progress in cultured meat. Eat Just gained regulatory approval in Singapore to sell cultured meat. And it had a tasting event for its cultured chicken, which will be sold at a restaurant next year. This is a pivotal moment.
Meera Zassenhaus, Communications and Media Manager at New Harvest, a nonprofit open fund research institute that advances breakthroughs in cellular agriculture, tells LIVEKINDLY that East Asian nations will be ahead of Western nations when it comes to approvals. That’s why a company like JUST, which is based in the U.S., is making moves in Singapore.
“Singapore is serious about their 30 by 30 goal to produce 30% of food internally by 2030,” she says. “Regulatory approval incentivizes companies to build pilot plants on Singapore soil as opposed to waiting for regulatory approval in the US and then shipping the product to Singapore.”
Progress didn’t just happen on the approvals front. Zassenhaus adds that 2020 saw an “explosion of companies focused on enabling technologies” like bioreactors, scaffolds, and fats, which are all critical to the cultured meat-making process. “I think we will see more of that in 2021, with the industry building out their own supply chain.”
One of the biggest bottlenecks for cultured meat producers, she explains, is the availability of technical talent.
“Growing meat requires a unique set of scientific skills that few people have been able to cultivate due to the lack of university cellular agriculture programs worldwide,” says Zassenhaus. Both New Harvest and GFI have been addressing this knowledge gap by providing funding for graduate students that want to pursue cultured meat research.
“The thing is, PhDs are multi-year endeavors,” she adds. “Our long-game investment in academic research is now beginning to pay off as students are finishing their PhDs and exponentially growing the cell ag talent pool.”
6. Packaging Gets a Facelift
2021 won’t just be about new food products. The packaging will matter, too. Single-used plastics will be less common and post-consumer recycled cardboard with carbon labeling will become more of the standard. Many supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s in the U.S. and Tesco in the UK, have already made progress with eliminating waste. More companies will follow — studies show that consumers are increasingly seeking products that align with their values.